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Producing Top Quality Wool

Eric Davis
Rangelands and Restoration
May 21, 2021

A picture of a Marine Corps Officer and his wife standing in front of an American and Marine Corps flag.
Marine Corps Officer in a 1960s era wool uniform. (Photo courtesy of Eric Davis)

From the sweater you wear, to airplane carpets, wool is one of the most incredible fibers in the world. It can keep you warm, its ability to absorb almost a third of its weight in water can keep you dry, and its low level of combustion can even keep you safe. Each year, American sheep producers deliver more than 23 million pounds of wool to ensure you have access to this miracle fiber.

In addition to our everyday use, wool is also a key component in the U.S. military uniforms. We all recognize our servicemembers in the sharp looking uniforms. We honor them for protecting us and our way of life. We recognize their uniform as a symbol of safety and protection. For the servicemembers themselves, the uniform needs to be comfortable and durable to allow them to carry out their duties with minimum distractions. To make a comfortable uniform, high-quality sheep wool is required, and that’s where the USDA Forest Service comes in.

The quality of wool is strongly dependent on the breed of sheep and the sheep’s diet. In the western states, the lands we manage provide for seasonal movement of millions of sheep to high quality forage throughout the grazing season. Moving up the mountain in the summer, and back down the mountain in the fall provides a steady level of nutrition for the sheep and yields quality wool with no nicks or breaks from lower nutrition forage.

The result is a high-quality, highly sought-after commodity. In fact, many military uniform cloth makers reach out directly to sheep producers known for the highest quality of wool clip. So, it won’t surprise you that many of the larger sheep producers focus their management practices on fiber quality.

In addition, to making the best wool fabric, the fleece must be clean and have a uniform fiber diameter throughout. It is essential that there are no nicks or breaks in the fiber diameter as that yields weak fibers that break and lead to weaker and more scratchy wool. The wool from sheep that spend their summers in the mountains is just the type needed for making dress uniforms for the U.S. military.

A picture of sheep grazing
Sheep graze on the Payette National Forest. In the West, most sheep graze on public lands and often produce the highest quality wool. (Forest Service Photo by Cody Allred)

Public Lands Grazing Contributes to Job Creation

Our national forests and grasslands have a widespread effect beyond sheep producers. To produce wool, fleece must be scoured or cleaned, spun into thread, woven into cloth, and then cut and sewn for blankets, berets, pea coats, dress uniforms, suits, socks, base layers and many other uses. Each of these steps represents small businesses and jobs across the country. Each of these businesses ultimately depends on the availability of and access to high-quality grazing lands.

So next time you see a servicemember in the U.S. military uniform, remember that while they defend our nation, the Forest Service, U.S. sheep producers, and the wool industry all ensure that they have uniforms that are of the highest quality, and are comfortable and durable to help them carry out their duties.

Allen Rowley, Associate Deputy Chief, National Forest System, now retired, contributed to this feature.

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